Throughout this summer I've made a lot of free-form tarts. Call them rustic, call them country-style, call them lazy, I find their rough-hewn glory beautiful.
Especially since they're so easy to make. Simply roll out the tart dough, transfer it to a baking sheet, spread the filling over the center, fold up the edges and bake. Easy as that.
Within that framework, there's plenty of room for improvisation and several ways to decorate a tart. Although you're restricted to fruit fillings (pastry cream would be problematic), you can mix and match fruit as you wish. This tart is as good with apples as it is with plums.
One bit of advice: If you're using soft fruit that will give off liquid (peaches, plums and nectarines come immediately to mind), begin with a layer of ground almonds to make sure you don't end up with a soggy crust. The flavors match well also. Almonds, after all, are cousins to stone fruit in the drupe family. (In fact, if you're trying to intensify the flavors of stone fruit in a cooked dish, try adding a little almond extract; you'll be amazed at the difference.)
With free-form tarts, you want a short crust, not a flaky one. The fact that short crusts are also much easier to make is, I assure you, strictly coincidental. More important is that they're also more crack-resistant and more water-resistant as well.
You could make this tart with a flaky crust, but be prepared for much sotto voce cursing as you try to keep it from crumbling under your fingers while you're folding it. Remember, with this tart you don't have a pan you can patch the broken bits into.
And though flaky crusts require a lot of attention--the butter needs to be ice cold and cut into the flour to just the right size; the dough has to be kept chilled to keep the butter intact, etc.--this short crust dough comes together in seconds in a food processor. With the kind of heat we've had this summer, that's important.
The recipe is based on one by Nancy Silverton at Campanile. First cut the butter into the flour. You don't have to worry about over-processing it at this point; in a short crust you want the butter and flour to be as thoroughly mixed as possible.
Then add the liquid all at once and process just until the dough forms a ball. Turn it off as soon as the dough clumps together. Overworking the dough forms too much gluten, which is what makes a crust tough.
Gluten is the strands of protein that form when flour is moistened and then stirred. Think of this crust as a glutinous balancing act. You want to work the dough enough that you form a little gluten--that's what makes the crust so easy to handle. On the other hand, too much gluten will make the crust tough. That's also why you cut the butter into the flour so thoroughly; it waterproofs the flour and inhibits gluten formation.
Of course, none of that matters to anyone but the cook. For all anyone else needs to know, this tart could have been something you slaved over.
NECTARINE AND ALMOND TART
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter, cubed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons ice water
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 pound nectarines
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup raspberries
Combine flour, salt and sugar in food processor work bowl. Pulse to combine. Add butter and process until thoroughly cut into flour. Combine vanilla extract and ice water and add to dry ingredients. Process just until dough begins to form into ball. Remove from food processor and press into disk. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Toast almonds in 400-degree oven until aromatic, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly and grind coarsely in food processor.
Slice nectarines thin and toss in mixing bowl with 1 tablespoon sugar and lemon juice until thoroughly mixed.
Remove Pastry Dough from refrigerator. Roll out 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch thick. Transfer dough to well-greased baking sheet or jelly roll pan.
Scatter ground almonds across dough sheet. Mound nectarines in rough pile in center. Scatter raspberries over top. Fold about 3 inches of dough edge toward center to form 5-sided free-form tart. Dust lightly with sugar.
Bake at 400 degrees until brown, about 45 minutes.
6 servings. Each serving:
343 calories; 256 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.04 grams fiber.